Written by An extract taken from the book "Child Protection" written by Professor Freda Briggs. AO
For her PhD, Dr Wendy Foote (2006) researched into what happens when mothers report child sexual abuse to Family Courts. She found that normal maternal anxiety is pathologised and mothers, not fathers, are labelled as mentally ill. Ironically, mothers who are mentally ill do not automatically lose residence of their chidren outside the Family Court.
In only 6% of litigated cases, accused fathers were banned from spending time with their children. In 38% of these cases, the ban related to child abuse/family violence and only 2% of these fathers were labelled as mentally ill. The notion that mothers concoct allegations of child sexual abuse has persisted despite (a) Australian and International research showing that children`s evidence is reliable and (b) research conducted with the cooperation of the Australian Family Court showed that false allegations are rare and, when they occur, the mothers usually had good reason to suspect that their children were being abused or were at high risk.
The risk of child sexual abuse being ignored in court decision-making is especially high if the abuse hasn`t been substantiated by state child protection services. State funded services have a long history of not investigating child abuse reports when the child is involved in a federal court case. This has often been attributed to the shortage of resources, state versus federal funding issues and a system of triage that de-prioritises cases once they are "within the family court processes".
However, Foote(2006) found that even when child protection workers gave evidence that a child had been sexually abused, family courts were likely to ignore them when deciding the child`s place of residence.
In the 2006 amendments to Australian family law, penalties were introduced for parents who made false allegations or denials of abuse to the court. It was noted that the emphasis was on false allegations by mothers, not false denials by fathers. Protective parents were then at risk of "punishment" if their accusations were not accepted by the Court. If the judge concluded that the abuse did not occur, it could be interpreted as the mother having lied for which she could be punished. This risk led to lawyers dissuading mothers from revealing a father`s history of child abuse or violence but to accept shared parenting at mediation sessions rather than risk being labelled as mad or bad and lose residence and possibly contact with their children.